The Plant Paleo Diet
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The Plant Paleo approach is dominated by whole foods. It is informed by the evolutionary clues left for us by our ancestors, and it is in harmony with the most widely accepted scientific evidence we have about diet and health. By design, it is an omnivorous, nutrient-dense diet that is considerably higher in plant foods than animal foods (like the diets of many hunter-gatherers, Blue Zones, longevity villages, and other healthy populations around the world). It contains an abundance of natural vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phytonutrients, and fiber. One of my goals is to design and utilize a diet that provides me with everything my body needs without requiring supplementation.
We humans can do very well on several types of diets with a few exceptions, such as the Standard American/Western Diet. Since 2010, I’ve spent a great deal of time keeping up with health news and research, and I’ve been talking about what I’ve found most interesting on my podcast, Latest in Paleo. Plant Paleo is the culmination of what I’ve learned so far and how I’ve applied it to my own diet. I am a formerly obese person who has beaten the odds and maintained 80-90 lbs (36-40 kg) of weight loss, and now have a lean body. This, despite the fact that I am a double carrier of many genes strongly associated with obesity.
Be sure to check out the food pictures at the end of the page, as well as the section on choosing the right diet for you!
Plant Paleo Basics
- Eat mostly organic plant-based foods as your staples.
- Eat small servings of naturally and ethically raised or (sustainable) wild animal-based foods and broths.
- On calories: Most foods you consume should be nutrient dense and calorically sparse; overall meals should be nutrient dense; and total caloric intake should be adjusted according to goals.
- Get your nutrients from whole foods instead of supplements, unless you have been diagnosed with a deficiency and are working with a health professional to correct it.
- Choose a variety of foods that are naturally high in fiber.
- This will help you feel full, while also feeding beneficial bacteria living in your body. Even mother’s milk contains sugars that can’t be metabolized by their babies but feed their babies’ gut flora, instead.
- Eat some raw vegetables everyday (a mixed salad, for example).
- Consume any water or broth used to sautè or boil your vegetables, meat, and bones…don’t waste those delicious nutrients!
- Avoid known food allergies and sensitivities.
- Avoid or greatly reduce refined sugars, fats, and proteins—yes, including all cooking oils and other added fats like butter, margarine, mayonnaise, sour cream, heavy cream, half & half, etc.
- Avoid or greatly reduce heavily processed foods.
- Get some non-stick pans and a non-stick indoor grill to help you cook without added refined fats. I prefer ceramics.
- Be mindful.
- Trust your cravings and learn to match the flavors you crave with nutritious, real-foods.
- Occasionally, satisfying a craving might mean eating less than optimal foods, and that’s OK.
- It’s the overall diet that matters most.
- Grow, gather and/or hunt some of your food.
- Consider seasonality and which foods might be more or less abundant in nature.
- If the above points do not entirely resonate with you, by all means figure out what eating mindfully means to you and do that instead (or in addition).
Whole plant foods are the staple
- Leafy greens: Consume daily, unlimited amounts.
- Include them by the handful in various dishes. Also include them in side dishes, and enjoy as snacks.
- Do not worry about tracking calories; eat as much as you like as long as they are prepared simply and without added, refined fats (throw in some nuts, seeds or avocados for extra whole-food fats, if you’d like).
- Eat some raw greens, as in a salad, every day. Here is a simple salad dressing recipe: combine a handful of raw, unsalted sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, 1/4 avocado, your favorite salsa, apple cider vinegar, some oregano, dried red pepper flakes, and black pepper into a wide-mouthed jar. Then blend with an immersion blender until smooth. You will end up with a lot dressing that is oil-free, more nutrient dense and equal or lower in calories than traditional oil-based dressings. You can add a pinch of salt if you’d like.
- Includes: arugula, basil, butterhead lettuce, bok choi, cabbage, celery leaves (great in soups), chard, chicory, dandelion, escarole, endive, iceberg lettuce, kale, green leaf lettuce, parsley, red leaf lettuce, radicchio, romaine lettuce, rutabaga, spinach, etc.
- Other vegetables: choose a colorful array, consume daily, no limit.
- Includes: asparagus, red peppers, green peppers, yellow peppers, carrots and other root vegetables, broccoli, cauliflower, celery, onions, garlic, scallions, shallots, seaweed, tomatoes, tomato sauce, etc.
- Prepare without added refined fats.
- Mushrooms: eat a wide variety, consume daily, no limit.
- For those who enjoy mushrooms, they provide delicious umami flavors as well as interesting textures to dishes of all kinds…and they’re pretty awesome by themselves, too.
- They are low in calories, bulky and satisfying.
- The health benefits attributed to mushroom consumption includes protection from cancer, heart disease, and diabetes, and supporting good immune function.
- Tubers: eat a variety, consume daily, no limit.
- Enjoy all varieties of potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, cassava, and taro (with or without skins).
- Cooled or reheated white potato varieties have high levels of resistant starch, a prebiotic (food for our gut bacteria). I always cook extra and store leftovers in the refrigerator.
- Prepare without added, refined fats.
- Legumes: eat a wide variety, consume up to daily, one half to one cup portion size.
- Is it Paleo? The overwhelming consensus of research into legume consumption is that they are health promoting and protect against disease. See Plant Paleo Part 2: Grains, Legumes, Fiber & Antinutrients and this article by Stephan Guyenet on Whole Health Source.
- Legumes are high in protein, high in fiber, contain many other nutrients, and are low in calories while promoting feelings of satiety.
- Includes: lentils, white beans, pinto beans, red beans, chickpeas, black beans, lima beans, edamame, etc.
- Broths & Stocks: prepared with a variety of vegetables, consume daily, no limit.
- Use homemade or high-quality, organic broths and stocks.
- Broths can be sipped straight or can be used to prepare other foods, like soups and grains (substitute 1/2 of the water, or more, when preparing in rice, barley, etc.).
- Use stocks in place of oil for sautèing.
- Fruit: eat a variety, consume daily, 1 to 4+ servings.
- Consume the whole fruit, versus packaged juices or even home juicing.
- Choose berries of all kinds, eaten alone or in other foods.
- Green bananas contain resistant starch, which may help feed beneficial gut bacteria. I eat green bananas several times per week.
- Smoothies are OK occasionally, but chewing is better.
- No fruits are off-limits, but be mindful of fruit seasonality, natural availability, etc.
- Whole grains: eat a wide variety, up to daily, small portions.
- Is it Paleo? See Plant Paleo Part 2: Grains, Legumes, Fiber & Antinutrients
- Choose a wide variety of whole grains (actual whole grains, not whole grain flours). These are very easy to prepare and make a great addition to hot and cold dishes. Examples include: whole barley, whole buckwheat, whole corn, whole einkorn, whole kamut, whole millet, whole steel cut oats, whole quinoa, whole rice, whole sorghum, whole spelt, whole teff, whole wheat berries, and whole wild rice.
- Processed grains make up a very small portion of my diet, and I limit them to foods made with 100% whole-grain or sprouted-grain flours. For example, one Ezekiel 4:9 Sprouted Grain Tortilla or a couple of Wasa crackers over the course of a given day, which is much less than 10% of calories. Pro-tip: the best price I’ve found in my area for Ezekiel wraps is at Trader Joe’s.
- Cook more than you need and store extras in the refrigerator. Not only is this convenient, but it may also increase the resistant starch content of some grains, like various rices, for example. Dietary resistant starch may assist with keeping the microbiome healthy.
- Nuts & Seeds: eat a variety, up to daily, small servings preferably with vegetables.
- Enjoy nuts and seeds with vegetables or in salads. The fat in them helps with nutrient absorption. They make a good snack, too, but can be easy for some people to overeat.
- Most often, I eat: brazil nuts (a little less than one daily, on avearage), pecans, sunflower seeds, flax seeds, and sesame seeds. Crushed sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, and flax seeds make an excellent addition to blended, oil-free salad dressings.
- Herbs, spices, seasonings, flavorful additions: eat a wide variety, daily, no limit.
- Celebrate the flavors of your favorite foods by eating them plain or with your favorite spices.
- I often use: garlic, ginger, basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, Asian seasoning mixes, turmeric, Indian seasoning mixes, etc. I also use low- and no-calorie sauces like tabasco, soy sauce, tamari, ketchup, mustard, etc. Choose organic and high quality versions when possible.
- Avoid or Greatly Restrict
- Frequent consumption of canned vegetables—especially if high in sodium or if they contain any additive ingredients.
- Processed grains: products made with white flour and/or sugar, fried breads, processed desserts, cakes, donuts, cookies, most boxed cereals, bagels, fried chips and crisps, vegetables fried in oil, biscuits, croissants, brioche, white flour tortillas, fried tortillas, muffins, white-flour pastas, noodles, stock bouillon.
- Gluten containing grains, if you are sensitive.
- Food bars made with additives, oils, refined flours, soy products.
- Seasonings and sauces made with questionable ingredients or that contain a lot of sodium or sugar.
- Bean flours, processed soy, fake meat foods, fake cheese foods.
- Organ meats (3-4 oz / 80-100 g): once a week, only from a variety of grass-fed, naturally raised, pastured, or wild animals.
- Eggs: one or two eggs from naturally raised chickens once or twice a week. Try to find a local source, these are often inexpensive and almost always far more delicious than what can be found in stores, even the high-end organic stores that make your wallet cry.
- Muscle meats (3-4 oz / 80-100g): once a week from a variety of grass-fed or wild animals (sustainably): fish, seafood, beef, goat, sheep, fowl, etc.
- Broths and stocks: use homemade as often as you would like in cooking. I use them to prepare whole grains in place of 50% of the recommended water. Also, use in place of oil for sautèing. Prepackaged, organic stocks can be used, but try to make a batch of bone broth with tendons at least once a month.
- Honey: Honey is one of nature’s most energy-dense foods. Ounce for ounce it has almost as many calories as coconut. As such, honey has been very popular with hunter-gatherers the world over. There are times of the year when honey provides as much 80% of the calories in the Hadza diet (Ichikawa, 1981), and it’s estimated to make up 15% of their diet on average. Great apes, like chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas eat honey, too. According to a 2012 article in the Journal of Human Evolution called Honey, Hadza, hunter-gatherers and human evolution: “Honey might be the most common and important insect-related item in the human forager diet.” Like everything else in your diet, quality matters. Choose raw, unfiltered honey. Enjoy the honey, honeycomb, and all of the little bits inside. Currently, I eat honey a few times a week. Here is some great information about honey & potential health benefits, too.
- Invertebrates: My experience with invertebrates at this time is limited to crustaceans and mollusks, which I consume in my rotation of “muscle meats.” I have very little knowledge about insectivorism or eating other invertebrates, but I do suspect that they can be part of a healthy diet as indicated by current science and evolutionary clues (like the fact that humans can easily digest chitin, which is what insect exoskeletons are mainly made of).
- My only caveat would be to avoid protein powders made from insects and to stick with whole-foods spirit of The Plant Paleo Diet. Hopefully, I’ll be able to expand this section in the future. Your knowledgeable input is welcome.
- Dairy: use sparingly
- I very rarely eat dairy products, and am lactose intolerant. Your mileage may vary. Some use dairy to gain weight, while some studies have shown that it can help with weight loss. I feed my young child raw or organic cow and goat milk, although we have gradually reduced how much she drinks (to make room for more whole foods in her diet). Over the next couple of years, we will likely reduce it further or eliminate it entirely.
- What about calcium? Sufficient calcium can be obtained from a variety of plant foods, bone broths, whole sardines, etc.
- For ethical reasons, choose dairy from grass-fed, naturally raised animals from local dairy farms. If that’s not possible, be sure to choose organic, hormone- and additive-free products at the grocery store or consider eliminating dairy from your diet.
- Small amounts of dairy as flavoring are OK, such as a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese.
- Avoid or Greatly Restrict
- Processed meats, including: bacon, deli meats, sausages with additive ingredients, canned meats, hot dogs, fried meats, fried skins, fried organ meats, etc.
- Meat and products from CAFOs.
- Processed dairy: heavy cream, half & half, whipped creams, butter, ghee, mayonnaise, low-fat dairy products.
- Let your cravings be your guide, but also be mindful not to overly indulge in calorie-rich foods that are easy to overeat.
- When possible snack on colorful raw vegetables; it is unnecessary to restrict the quantity; eat as much as you want, taking care to chew thoroughly.
- Fruit makes for a good snack, but do not overeat. I generally eat 1 to 4 servings of fruit per day, between meals.
- Nuts and seeds make for a good snack, too, however they are also easy to overeat. It’s a great idea to reserve nuts and seeds for eating in salads or with raw vegetables; this helps with nutrient absorption. For snacking, take a small portion and leave the bag in the pantry. Better yet, buy nuts & seeds unsalted and in-shell to naturally help limit the quantity consumed.
- Whole potatoes, hot or cold, dipped in your favorite organic, preferably homemade sauces (barbeque, sriracha, ketchup, mustard, oil-free vinaigrette, tomato-based, etc.).
- Homemade, oil-free hummus on whole-grain, oil-free crackers, corn chips/crisps, or raw vegetables.
- Roasted chickpeas with seasoning (e.g. turmeric, salt and pepper).
- Air-popped popcorn (here’s our machine—I really like this snack with a spritz of vinegar-infused water, a generous sprinkle of nutritional yeast, and a dash or two of salt).
- Homemade baked corn chips/crisps with salsa or bean dip. To make the chips, buy or make organic, oil-free corn tortillas, cut into triangles (like a pizza) and toast in your toaster oven until crispy (be careful not to burn). This is the toaster oven we chose; highly recommended.
- Dark chocolate, small amounts.
- Avoid or Greatly Restrict
- Anything with trans fats or high-fructose corn syrup—these are the hallmarks of low-quality, unhealthy foods.
- Processed foods made with flour, sugar, and/or oil (including most that are gluten-free, Paleo-approved, vegan, and other catch phrases that appear on labels).
- Anything made with artificial sweeteners.
- Nut butters—this type of processing leads to over-eating. Consider how much longer it would take to eat 25 in-shell almonds versus the equivalent in almond butter—just 1/4 cup or a couple of spoonfuls. Let your teeth start the digestion process, instead of the mill.
- Examples of what to avoid/greatly restrict (Note: the following list of foods are major contributors to the Standard American/Western Diet):
- Cake, cookies, pop-tarts, pies, doughnuts, most cereals, peanut butter and jelly sandwich, etc.
- Fried foods, including potato chips/crisps, fried corn chips/crisps, anything deep fried, etc.
- Ice cream and most frozen yogurts.
- Packaged foods that aren’t normally “light” or “fat-free,” but have been processed as such, especially if they contain artificial sweeteners.
- Deli meats, cheeses, pizzas.
- Candy, milk chocolate.
- Soda (full sugar or diet), energy drinks, buttered or Bulletproof™ Coffee, fruit and/or vegetable juices.
- Microwave or oil-popped popcorn.
- Most frozen snacks: hot pockets, waffles, etc.
Added sugar, fat, protein & other processed foods
- Fish oil / cod liver oil. I personally do not take supplements, including fish oil. Some research does suggest fish oil can be beneficial, while other research suggests that it is not. If taking fish oil, limit to suggested serving recommendation on the bottle, or less, and be sure to discuss with a health professional you trust.
- There is no need to fear fat…nor is there a need to overeat fat. Get your sugars, proteins, and fats from whole foods. In whole foods, they’re already in the correct proportions, and there is no need to obsess over macronutrient ratios.
- Some minimally processed foods are OK, if they contain just a few ingredients, all of them recognizable and acceptable. This is a gray area, because these foods are not necessarily nutrient-dense, and they can be easy to overeat. However, in proper amounts they can also be part of a healthy diet. Be mindful.
- Examples: a serving of Ezekiel 4:9 bread products, Wasa crackers, vinegars, sauces, dips, some cereals, whole grain pastas (whole wheat spaghetti, rice noodles, whole corn pasta, etc.).
- Avoid or Greatly Restrict
- All highly refined sugars, fats, and proteins and processed foods that contain them.
- Examples of what to avoid:
- Sugars: table sugar, brown sugar, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, cane sugar, etc.
- Fats: especially avoid trans fats and vegetable (seed) oils; but also other cooking oils, olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil, walnut oil, sesame oil, etc.
- Protein: protein powders, isolates, processed soy products and meat substitutes.
- Processed foods: nearly everything down the center aisles of the grocery store; foods that come in packaging; foods that are advertised; foods with character logos; foods made primarily with white flours and sugars; etc.
Plant Paleo is compatible with any style of meal-frequency. I practice a loose form of intermittent fasting, where I eat between about 11:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. This works out to about a 15-hour daily fast.
Some people have suggested eating Plant Paleo in combination with the increasingly popular 5:2 Diet, where adherents fast twice a week (600 – 1000 calories on fast days) and do not restrict food on the other five. Others have suggested eating animal-based foods in larger quantities, but only a couple of days a week, mimicking some hunter-gatherer patterns (a couple of successful ‘hunts’ per week).
Plant Paleo is also a natural fit for anyone eating a Flexitarian or VB6 (Vegan Before 6) diet. Essentially, Plant Paleo is a whole-food, plant-based diet with the addition of some high quality, animal-based foods to provide nutrients like Vitamin B12 and DHA—without supplementation.
This is a great quote, that I think sums up the Plant Paleo approach rather well:
[I]t is likely that no hunter-gatherer society, regardless of the proportion of macronutrients consumed, suffered from diseases of civilization. Most wild foods lack high amounts of energy and this feature, in combination with the slow transit of food particles through the human digestive tract, would have served as a natural check to obesity and certain other diseases of civilization. Yet today, all non-Western populations appear to develop diseases of civilization if they consume Western foods and have sedentary lifestyles. Given these facts, in combination with the strongly plant-based diet of human ancestors, it seems prudent for modern-day humans to remember their long evolutionary heritage as anthropoid primates and heed current recommendations to increase the number and variety of fresh fruit and vegetables in their diets rather than to increase their intakes of domesticated animal fat and protein.
– Katharine Milton, Professor of physical anthropology, University of California in Berkeley.
Choose a Diet that Works For You
There are many diets based on whole foods; please choose the one that you believe will a) work for you and b) that you will be able to stick with. I’m posting this as a reference, because I get a lot of questions regarding my diet, and I need a page I can direct people to when they ask about it. I do also believe the diet outlined here can serve others very well, too, either in its present form or as a starting point—but please remember that you should always consult a physician or nutritionist before starting a new diet, especially if you have existing medical issues. The diet that works for me, will not necessarily work the same way for you.
For context: I am in my early 40s, in good health, an active walker & hiker, and my goals are to maintain nearly 90 lbs of weight loss, to build on my existing strength and endurance, to maintain (and perhaps build a little) muscle mass, and most of all to maximize health & longevity. People with medical conditions or drastically different context/goals—who want to try a Plant Paleo approach—may need to adjust accordingly. Again, work with health and physical training professionals that you trust.
Please contact me if you have any questions, comments, concerns, and especially if you believe I’m missing the mark here and can suggest improvements.